Shanghai Night is the brainchild of Chinese collector Qiao Zhibing, who, in just ten years, has made a name for himself as one of the leading buyers of international contemporary art in China. Now, poised to move beyond the nightclub as exhibition venue, the entrepreneur-collector is opening Tank Shanghai, a combination of art museum and recreation facility built from five empty oil tanks standing on the shores of the Huangpu River. Scheduled to debut in December, the complex, designed by Beijing-based OPEN Architecture, measures some 640,000 square feet, with about 100,000 square feet of exhibition space. It will be the new highlight of the art-rich West Bund Cultural Corridor, a government initiative that already includes the Long Museum and the Yuz Museum; Oriental Dreamworks will also soon open its doors there. Qiao estimates the budget for the project at 100 million RMB, or $15 million, most of it culled from his own resources.
“I started out simply wanting to decorate my clubs, but soon I wanted to increase the quality,” says Qiao, speaking with the assistance of a translator while enjoying tea at an upscale Beijing hotel. Casually but fashionably dressed, the 50-year-old collector, accompanied by his ever-present girlfriend, Tsai Lihsin, speaks openly of his ambitions at the beginning of his enterprise. “So many people visited the clubs, and the collection was a way of showing off my taste. It’s like having a dress code to maintain a high quality as part of the atmosphere.”
At the time, it was still rare for a Chinese collector to acquire works from galleries rather than auction houses and rarer still for one to frequent international art fairs. Qiao made his first purchase of a work by an international artist in 2009, when he bought an Antony Gormley sculpture from Continua Gallery in Beijing. “I was looking for sculptures with an immediate emotional impact,” he recalled. Soon after, he began approaching Western art dealers, who were sometimes less than accommodating with this unknown entrepreneur from China. “They would ask questions like, ‘Can you name a few contemporary artists?’ just to see if I knew what I was doing,” Qiao said. Now those same dealers welcome him with open arms and invite him to their homes. Qiao told me that on a recent trip, he went to dinner at David Zwirner’s home, and the dealer’s wife presented him with a bottle of fine Chinese rice wine. “She ran around New York for a day and found the last bottle, just to give it to me,” he said.
When asked how he won over hard-nosed New York dealers, Qiao explained, “My passion touched them. This is also about your taste. If you pick the good-quality works, this would be very helpful. But it is also about long-term persistence. If you go there every year and buy frequently, they will know you are serious.”
As Zwirner himself put it, “I have had many good times together with Qiao Zhibing and Lihsin over the past year, from visits to Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as hosting them in New York and at Art Basel. I love their youthful energy and entrepreneurial spirit, and I admire their enthusiasm and commitment to collecting.”
“If someone said, ‘I’m going to put my collection in a night club in New York,’ everyone would be aghast,” Kelly said. “But somehow in China, the mere fact that someone like Qiao Zhibing is collecting in such a sophisticated way is an important statement, and the fact that he is exposing it to such a plural audience is actually quite a wonderful thing.”
He is certain that Tank Shanghai will bring his collection to a whole new level. “Up to now,” he said, “I’ve thought of my purchases as a matter of individual taste, but today I am thinking for an institution.” The tank complex, formerly an airport facility, will have five oil tanks turned into multilevel exhibition spaces as well as parkland, restaurants, and bars, a marina by the river, and a heliport. He is already inviting artists to visit the site and propose commissioned projects. Olafur Eliasson, Danh Vo, Theaster Gates, Martin Creed, Anish Kapoor, and Abramović have come to look things over. “First of all, we respect the artists’ own choices,” said Tsai, who is a partner on the project. “We really wouldn’t intervene with their creation except if it is beyond our limits.” One such project—an installation proposed by Kapoor conjoining the roofs of two tanks—proved impractical.
“Contemporary art has opened my mind in ways that have influenced every aspect of my life,” said Qiao. “Many of my friends collect wine or cars, but I have sacrificed all recreational activities for contemporary art.” And it looks as if he will be able to pass his devotion on to the next generation, too. His daughter, who is 20 and studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, often voices her opinion on his selections. By the time she graduates, Tank Shanghai will have opened, and perhaps, as often happens in China, the founder’s child will become the museum’s first curator or director.
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 128 under the title “From Palace to Tank.”